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Adams Peak can be a grueling trek but ultimately extremely rewarding. The cultural aspect especially, which makes it stand to reason to attempt it in the pilgrimage season. This was from last year. We trekked up half the distance through a jungle path* that only opens up when the villagers of Udamaliboda begin to use it for their own pilgrimage. The path is otherwise usually covered in thick undergrowth and you are likely to get lost if you attempt it at any other time. Also, even at the best of times, the risk of flash floods is real.

When you reach the steps proper, which in our case consisted of little more than rough cuts made into rock (the Kuruvita route. The more civilized paths lead up from Hatton and Ratnapura, the former is crowded and touristy, while the latter is longer but more peaceable and one with nature), and meet other pilgrims on their way up or down, they will greet you in verse invoking upon you the blessings of the god Saman, the deity of the mountain. You are generally expected to respond in kind, or bear the brunt of the uncomfortable silences that follow with respectful, sheepish smiles.

The mountain’s Sinhala name, Samanala, derives from the name of this god or also possibly the Sinhala word for butterfly, which is the same. The whole area surrounding the mountain, which is sacred and steeped in ancient lore and significance associated with all four major faiths the island hosts but primarily in the belief systems of the Sinhala people, is known as ‘the realm of the mountain god’ or ‘Samanala adaviya’, to those that revere it. It is also known as ‘Shri Pada’ (for the sacred footprint on its peak said to belong to Adam, Shiva or the Buddha based on which belief system you subscribe to) or Adam’s Peak.

There are four main paths that lead to the peak, and attribute it to what you will, but ascending or descending along the lesser populated ones, it is not hard to gather a sense of otherwordly profundity in every leaf that brushes your face, in the clumps of big rock roughly hewn to make way for human progress, in the breathtaking views and sights that greet you as you progress upwards or in every rivulet of icy water that crosses your path; from thin streams to the gushing majesty of the ‘seetha gangula’ or ‘cool river’ in which it is considered especially auspicious to bathe in.

In the case of the path we took, every leech that successfully latched on to our foot in tenacious determination, sucking our blood and giving us the itches for weeks afterwards, also succeeded in conveying something otherworldly, just not so much in a good way. But if you are up for a tough hike, I would strongly recommend the path from Udamaliboda. In an age of ease and convenience, it alone remains one of the only truly ‘authentic’ ways up there. I know, I sound like such a hipster.

Remarkable people come to the peak. I saw old men and women, some supporting themselves with walking sticks resolutely making their way upwards, even passing us, our poor touristy tread unfired by any sense of profound purpose, in an amazing testament to the power of human faith. Whole families, nay, whole villages will come up the mountain together, many will carry toddlers all the way up and all the way back down. They will bring supplies and cook and sleep and live their way up the mountain, often taking days to complete the pilgrimage, taking advantage of the many ‘ambalamas’ or resting places constructed for the purpose.

It is said that Ibn Batuta, the famous Moroccan Islamic jurist who pretty much made an envious lifelong career out of traveling and writing about it, talked the Tamil king of the North at the time into taking him to the peak. He must have gone through thick jungle, forbidding trials, and territory belonging to Sinhalese kings, but he doesn’t appear to have experienced any untoward problems. In Islamic tradition, including the prophet’s (may peace be upon him) hadeeth, there is some evidence that Adam could have alighted upon Sarandib, but there is evidence just as strong that makes the case of him having landed in Jordan. Anyhow, it appears that Muslim traders initially made a big deal of the former, which also resulted in increased access to the hinterlands, and expansion of the trade in gems, both a spiritually and commercially profitable enterprise.

The multiculturalism of Adam’s peak however, I can attest to. When I found myself up there before sunrise, I was anxious to offer my pre-dawn salah. This was at the height of BBS induced anti-Muslim hate in the country, and being the city slicker I am, I naively feared I would be mobbed in mid-prayer. The top of the mountain is a warren of construction; temples and viewing platforms; sprawling resting places, all squeezed into a very small piece of land right on the peak, which incidentally results in terrible foot traffic jams along the more crowded Hatton route, which sort of beats the purpose of taking the shorter, more commercial path to the top.

I apprehensively laid my prayer rug amidst sleeping bodies, in what I thought was a secluded corner. And proceeded to pray. I kept hearing hubbub in the background, hubbub which I expected to rise to a crescendo of outrage at any moment. But nothing happened. I prayed, nodded at a few groggy people just waking up, and left. I felt unnoticed, unremarked upon, and more than anything else that could have happened, that made me feel welcome, a part of the crowd.

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Nothing really left to talk about except for the sunrise, which everyone waits for, and which is pretty much the point of the whole exercise for those that aren’t religiously motivated. There is a very long moment of staring into the East, hundreds of people literally looking towards the East, faces open and expectant as if hoping for some sort of divine revelation. And the sun is a total tease. It made us wait and wait, and finally deigned to let loose a single gleam, a ray as sharp as a laser beam piercing through the crowd, before finally rising completely to the occasion.

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The sun will soon be too bright to look at, but if you glance off the Western side of the mountain, you will see the massive triangular shadow of the peak stretching to the horizon, the mist still caught in the valleys of lesser peaks look like trapped lakes. It is truly a breathtaking sight.

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*information on trails and travel advice to Adam’s Peak can be found on the excellent Lakdasun

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I met Nathan on a bus bound for Hatton. Nathan lives in a shop at pettah. A hotel. He’s a career hotel worker. Having worked in Nawalapitiya. He now juggles three jobs in pettah in order to raise his kids of which he has four. He is also a karate master. Owns five cows. And farms a small patch of land of about 90 perches in Bogawantalawa. His pet peeve is hating on Muslim Tamil, he thinks we bastardized it. For example, our word for ‘eat’ is what real Tamil speakers use when feeding dogs. So when a group of Hindu priests from India arrived at his shop in Pettah and the Muslim waiter boy asked them if they want to ‘eat’ they looked at each other’s faces and got up and left.

On young men and the pitfalls of living ‘alone’…

Nathan gets up at 5am and starts work at his uncle’s hotel, making roti for about an hour or two. He gets free lodging there and also a salary of 1000 bucks a day for making rotty. I asked why he doesn’t get a proper room with some privacy. But apparently it costs too much. Like 10k. And also being alone. It’s not good for your head. Apparently you get all sorts of ideas. One young man who lived alone, he says this as if that young man was indulging in some extravagant luxury, started smoking ganja and got caught to the cops.

Lots of young men, fresh from the mountains so to speak, fall into various traps. Like women. One guy from Nuwaraeliya met a girl from Batticaloa and was ‘carrying on’ with her four about for years. Whereupon she left him with about four lakhs of his money. He got ‘mental’ and eventual drank ‘medicine’ which is probably weedicide. He didn’t succeed in killing himself but Nathan and others eventually returned him to his village. Four lakhs is a fortune. Four lakhs is four cows. But before I elaborate on the cows, another young man who met a girl from Anuradhapura while working as a waiter in a shop. She eventually stole a gold chain from him and left. All these girls are sluts, says Nathan. They are no good. They come to shops to eat, flirt with the waiters and ensnare them in their putrid honey traps.

On working in tea plantations…

But Nathan is self assured. He’s been through a lot and wears the experience like a generalissimo. Both his parents were estate workers but he refused follow in their footsteps. His wife works in the estate however and he says it isn’t that bad. You don’t get paid much. Rs 500 a day. But the estate gives you 10kg of flour for just Rs1000. There’s also a one time payment of 15k per child. They also cut a little bit for the Employee’s Provident Fund (EPF). The EPF is the best thing about the whole deal. At the end of a long lifetime if plucking tea, the worker can look forward to about 5 to 10 lakhs to retire with.

Cows…

I’m guessing some of his parents’ EPFs were used to buy Nathan’s cows. He has five. But minister Thondaman gave them two on an easy payment scheme. These cows aren’t like the ones in Colombo, they’re imported from Australia and can deliver about 20 liters of milk a day. His five cows earn him about 60000 a month. He has to spend about 20000 on punnakku. So 40000 is clean profit. A cow can typically give birth to 13 calves in its lifetime. So having a cow says Nathan is better than having gold. It earns and earns you money. So how can you even think of eating its flesh? A man who eats a cow’s heart and does so for six months will soon find his own heart getting bigger, too big for his chest. He will have trouble breathing and will have to go to a clinic. A cow is sacred. It is like a mother. Eating its flesh will make humans cows by nature. Cows are allowed to die in peace and are then buried. No such care is taken with bulls though. Male calves are allowed to grow upto full size and promptly sold to a butcher.

On surviving…

Nathan juggles his life between Pettah and Bogawantalawa. He has to do a lot of work in his small plantation. He has to cut grass to feed his cows. Which are kept locked up in a shed 24/7 because ‘that’s how you’re supposed to breed them’. Also cattle thieves are everywhere. In addition to this, his job making rotty in pettah Nathan also makes short eats. After his two hours of morning rotti making he grabs a bit of sleep and uses his uncle’s kitchen to make all sorts of short eats which he sells by about 3pm. Then once in every two days he does Nataami work which is hard labor lifting and carrying sacks of produce. Nataami work typically starts at 12 midnight and lasts for about 90 minutes. It’s not easy work, Nathan must be in his mid to late thirties. But you get paid about 1500 rupees. And you have four kids to raise.

He told me a horrible story about something that happened to his wife. Who he refers to as his Samsaram. She went last year to Saudi for work. And returned after one month and seven days. She lived in the third floor of a four story house with a family of three. The son was vey abusive and would touch and fondle her and cut her hair. She eventually escaped from her third story room by tearing her bedsheets into strips and using them as a rope to climb out of the window. Many housemaids return to Sri Lanka as corpses says Nathan. In the house his wife lived in a Sri Lankan girl had been killed previously.

and wrapping up with a conspiracy theory..

It is obvious that Nathan is well liked. Especially among the residents of the Gunasinghapura koreas where he lives. He likes to make fun of their Tamil and they return in kind. When his daughter attained puberty a whole load of them came to Bogawatalawa and he took them to see Siripada.

Nathan shares my ambivalence for bus music. Ok he fair well hates it. The only song he liked was the Hindi dam arey dam.

Oh yeah. Apparently in the US the authorities have imposed a new kind of ID. It is a microchip. They implant it in your arm if you’re a man, forehead if you’re a woman and at the top of your skull if you’re a child. They can track all of your movements and actions. He doesn’t seem quite clear on whether this is already happening or is still at some experimental stage. Anyway it’s somehow connected to the number 666 and 18digits like the barcodes you find in products everywhere. Somehow this long number will become the ‘last number in the world’ just before apocalypse hits. I didn’t get that bit either.


“Hanging by my fingers and toes, looking for purchase on a near vertical surface of rock. Jerry is behind me, KP below him,  then Indi and a fall of a few thousand feet after that” Probably would be a good tweet to describe this moment, if i’m in a position to tweet, which i’m not.

Lakegala is in the depths of  Deaneston, in the South Knuckles area. It is famous for its rumored place in Ravanic legends. At this very moment however, Ravanic thoughts are not on my mind. Because at this very moment I’m grappling with the ultimate understanding of the cliched phrase ‘don’t look down’. I’m pep talking my mind, telling it to be strong, while simultaneously trying to get comfortable with the immediacy of my own death. Wondering if Allah will disapprove that it came about as a result of purely recreational pursuits.

See that little line on the rock up there? That's what you need to climb up to get to the top

Punchi Banda from Meemure is our guide. He is now a few feet above me in the narrow crevice in the rock face that we are climbing. We soon realize that our preparations for this climb are woefully inadequate. We have only thirty feet of rope, while we actually need like, two hundred. We were supposed to do religious rituals to appease the mountain gods (and i think, our guide). The guide is supposed to be a master climber. He is supposed to negotiate some three hundred feet of precarious free climbing to get to the top and send us down a rope.

But after having scaled the mountain some three times in his life, Punchi Banda has only deep respect mixed with fear for it. He had promised himself to never climb it again before we came along. And now he’s kind of freaking out. Mostly because he thinks that we can’t make it there and back alive.

Jerry and Punchi Banda

The balance tips when we have to stop, and wait till a bunch of university students about twenty feet ahead of us send us down a bit of their rope. Waiting is slow torture. The rock is sharp and unforgiving, it is hard to stand comfortably for extended periods of time. We slowly begin to feel more and more fatigue and the hot midday sun isn’t helping.

After asking us what religions we belonged to, and making us panic, Punchi Banda decides to take this moment to start chanting pirith. This is a Very Bad Idea. The lilting tones of mournful Pali verse only succeed in driving home the cold reality of our situation. We are stuck thousands of feet in the air, in a narrow crevice in a vertical rock face. this is not a casual weekend adventure. Mortality stares me in the face, a small slip on the rock, an unsteady toehold and we’re all crashing down to the fishes. I glance down at KP, I can see him thinking about his family. Jerry’s face is impassive, but i can tell he’s under quite a bit of strain. Indi is below us, apparently comfortably wedged between rock taking pictures, assures me later that he was only fervently thinking about his mother.


Where we were supposed to get to

We would have still gone on. But when the students above us announced that they were giving up and were coming back down, we had no choice but to turn back; only a hundred feet from that taunting peak that has been on my mind ever since we first stepped into the beautiful, unforgiving landscape of Deanston. I think we were all secretly relieved. in the words of KP; ‘there is a very narrow line between being courageous and being stupid’ and i think we almost crossed that line on this rock. Below is a pic from that trip, from the Sinhalaya Travels post. Lakegala is the triangular peak at the top left, in case you missed it.

The rock was a monster, and i can see why King Ravana would choose it as his love nest/ palace/ garage (depending on which version of the legend you believe). One version of the story says that his private jet is still hidden somewhere up there in the mountain. The retired postmaster whose hospitality we enjoyed told us that there is a cave on the other face, virtually inaccessible, that seemingly has some mysterious signs of Ravana’s existence, but he has only heard it from people who claim to have stumbled upon it.

The villagers are uniquely protective of the mountain. They strongly discourage people from going up there. They lie about the conditions (too slippery, too hot) and withhold guides if they can. They claim that is is because its too dangerous. Yet, once, practically the whole village went up there for an overnight pirith session (a Bhuddist religious service). It must have been quite the venture, priests, disciples, mothers, kids, grandparents and even electric power generators making that grueling trek and climbing that rock face to spend the night up there. Its obvious that they consider the rock to be sacred for some reason. Its not something that even the village boys climb for fun (our guide didn’t climb the peak until he was in his late thirties, despite having spent his whole life there). The thought of legions of outsiders making their way up Lakegala just for kicks is probably repulsive to them.

Not that its easy to get there, oh no. To get to the rock you must first get to Meemure, a village at the very bottom of the basin of Deanston. Most cabs won’t go there if they know the quality of the roads. The driver that took us ended up demanding much more than the agreed price to make up for vehicular damage. the journey takes all of three hours and involves a lot of cussing, mostly from the driver.

And if you thought getting to Meemure was a challenge, wait until you start the trek up to the rock. After a little while, we literally had to cut our way through the scrubby, thorny jungle. The ground is very steep and covered in loose rock. Any paths that exist have been created by buffalo roaming in search of grass. On the way down its even harder, we got disoriented and lost. Lucky thing we had a guide. The whole place is smothered in a deadly, wild beauty. Nature here has not been tamed, and you put a foot wrong and there’s no one to help you, then you’re in trouble.

Meemure itself is idyllic. A small village of a hundred families, time passes at a different pace. Apparently the village was founded because a princess belonging to one of the Rajasinghe kings was brought here to be hidden, some two hundred years ago. This makes sense, as Meemure doesn’t seem like a place people would just stumble upon and decide to stay in. Don’t go here looking for creature comforts; they have no hotels or rest houses here. But ultimately we didn’t do to badly. We got a temple floor to sleep on, a nice rivers and water pools to bathe in and wonderful home cooked rice and curry to eat. Here in this place in the depths of a mountain range, original Sri Lankan hospitality still survives.

The nearest town to Meemure is Hunnasgiriya and the only way back there is in either a rickety van or truck, we took the latter. It bounced along and they kept packing people in, and we kept finding room for them. At tough uphill bends, of which there were many, we had to get down to allow the truck to be able to negotiate the turns. We then had to cut across the road through leech infested jungle paths to catch up with it as it sped ahead. The whole journey takes about three hours.

All in all it was a wonderful experience, barring the fail at the top of the rock. All the more reason to go back (insha Allah).

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